Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Black Abbot of Puthuum

 Back when I was trying to determine if Clark Ashton Smith had written any full out sword & sorcery I could have saved a lot of time if I had known of the story The Black Abbot of Puthuum. Most of the stories that various folks had championed as Smith's S&S were lacking a strong central hero, (Particularly the ones that L. Sprague de Camp kept putting into his S&S anthologies.) which I felt disqualified them as sword and sorcery. Later I would read stories like The Master of Crabs which did indeed have tough men at arms as heroes.
   Abbot has not one, but two stalwart heroes. In fact, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike remind me not a little of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though this 1936 tale appeared three years before the first published adventure of the boys from Lankhmar.
   There's plenty of sorcery in this story. Zobal and Cushara are acting as escorts, guarding a beautiful young girl who has been purchased for their king's harem. On the way home a strange cloud of dark mist surrounds them and begins herding the travelers towards an unknown destination. The cloud drives them to the front door of an ancient monastery where they are greeted by a fat, creepy Abbot who calls himself Ujak. Ujak is served by 12 weird monks who seem physically identical to their master and who cast no shadows.
   Having little choice in the matter, the archer and the pikeman agree to stay the night. From there the story gets even more weird, bringing in elements of cannibalism and a very nasty curse placed on a character. In the end it will be up to the skills of the two warriors, and a little dark sorcery, to save the day. The story may not have the pace and savagery of a Robert E. Howard yarn, but it is without a doubt, a tale of sword & sorcery.
   What it does have is the otherworldly mood that CAS was so good at, and his lush, evocative prose. It also functions well as a horror story, which I think is important to true S&S. It makes me wish that Smith had written a series of stories about Zobal and Cushara. I think the pair had plenty more adventures in them.
   I read this story in the fifth volume of Night Shade Book's Collected fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith but it appears in several anthologies. Well worth your time.


Paul R. McNamee said...

I might need to go on an e'book binge.

Baen is offering the 5 fantasy volumes in a bundle for $25.

That's a lot of CAS for cheap.

(they also have Fafhrd & Grey Mouser as a $35 bundle, though I have the paperbacks, I still might grab those, too)

Keith said...

Haven't read this one yet, although I have the collected fantasies from Nightshade. Need to fix that oversight.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yeah, you need the CAS collections, Paul. That's too good a deal to pass up. I may have to get the Leiber myself.

Give it a read and let me know what you think, Keith.